Boeing institutes tough battery tests

Boeing is desperately trying to get its 787 Dreamliner fleet back into the air and it is now testing the plane’s volatile Li-Ion battery system to a rigorous standard that it helped develop itself.

The strict new standard was never employed on the Dreamliner and in retrospect it might have been a good idea to run the tests before it was pressed into service.

The Dreamliner was the first commercial jet to use lithium ion batteries, which are a great way to save a bit of weight, but in some cases they can be more dangerous than exploding footwear and underwear. Following a couple of highly publicised battery incidents, the Dremliner fleet was grounded in January. Since the battery tech was all new, the FAA had to approve a set of special conditions for fire safety on the Dreamliner in 2007.

A Boeing committee issued a set of guidelines in March 2008 to minimise the risk of Li-Ion batteries. However, Boeing never had to meet the more stringent guidelines. The FAA never required it and Boeing chose to ignore them.

Boeing is now scrambling to get the Dreamiliner battery system up to spec and apply the tougher RTCA standard, published in 2008. However, it seems like it is too little too late.

Former NTSB board member John Goglia told Reuters that Boeing’s decision to use the  tandard is basically an admission that the company didn’t do a good job to begin with. Last month, the NTSB questioned the assumptions made by Boeing and the FAA during the battery certification process in 2007.

A Boeing spokesperson said the RTCA standard was not used because the it came too late, after Boeing had completed certification. Boeing is about one-third through testing under the stricter RTCA standard and it is likely to get the job done in a couple of weeks.

It is still unclear when the Dreamliner fleet will start flying again.